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The Witcher heralds an era of game IPs on TV | Opinion

As media giants prepare to do battle over streaming, well-known IPs are a potent weapon -- and videogames remain the last great untapped source

Netflix, it appears, intends to toss rather more than a coin to its witcher. The streaming service has never been shy in bragging about successes, but it has been dramatically bullish about the success of The Witcher even by its own standards.

Some of the company's claims about The Witcher deserve to be taken with a pinch of salt -- its sky-high viewer numbers for the first season, for example, are based on a count of people who watched at least two minutes of the show, a length of time which wouldn't even get you to the opening credits of the first episode. Netflix claims that this new way of measuring viewership puts it in line with other companies in the industry, which leads one to wonder slightly about its executives' childhoods, because I had previously thought that "and if the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you do that too?" parental admonishment was quite a universal one.

Some things, however, speak to a genuine belief in The Witcher's success in a way that no amount of public boasting ever could -- such as the company's commitment to more seasons of the show and its apparent commissioning of an animated spin-off movie to fill the gap before the next full season of TV arrives next year. Also hard to fake is the sudden surge in demand for the previously rather obscure book series which has resulted in a gigantic reprinting run, and the enormous enthusiasm for the show online is no doubt genuine as well. The Witcher is a bona fide phenomenon, no matter how uncomfortable mental gymnastics with viewership numbers may make you.

"The Witcher has -- up until now -- primarily been a game property, with many players probably not aware that a novel series exists"

That success is a pretty important milestone, because while it's true that The Witcher is adapting a series of novels, it's undeniable that most of the pre-release buzz and built in anticipation that allowed this show to become such an enormous hit so quickly came not from the books but from CD Projekt Red's massively popular series of games. The novels, while hardly a flop, have largely enjoyed a devoted niche following in Eastern Europe; the games are global mega-hits, especially the most recent instalment, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, which has sold somewhere in the region of 20 million copies worldwide.

It's not unfair to say that in most markets around the world, The Witcher has -- up until now -- primarily been a game property, with many players probably not even aware that a novel series exists. This, in essence, makes The Witcher into the first hugely successful, premium TV show to build its success on a videogame-centric IP.

That's a big deal, because right now the world is filling up with TV streaming services with enormous financial backing, and each of those services knows that to carve out a place in what will become an increasingly cutthroat business, they need content. From Disney and Netflix to HBO and Warner, from CBS and NBC to any number of regional hopefuls in major content markets around the world, not to mention Amazon and Apple, billions and billions of dollars are currently being poured into war-chests to find the next big, broad-appeal IP that will fuel water-cooler discussions and drive subscription uptake.

Some studios are better established than others for this battle. Disney's ownership of Marvel and Star Wars gives it a bit of a head-start, as The Mandalorian showed, but other studios aren't being slow about resurrecting old properties (like CBS' Star Trek) or whipping out their chequebooks for new ones, like Amazon's snapping up of Lord of the Rings or HBO's (against-all-odds excellent) Watchmen miniseries.

It's not that these companies can't create genuinely original TV shows -- they have done, and in some cases the results have been excellent. In this kind of no-holds-barred battle, though, an IP that comes with a built-in fanbase is a very special kind of weapon; it earns you instant hype, free word-of-mouth and, to some degree, the audience trust and patience required to do interesting things in the show from the outset. The problem, however, is that there aren't so many great IPs like that just sitting around out there -- hence why big bucks have been paid out to use even properties that were very recently adapted (Lord of the Rings) or outright controversial to touch (Watchmen).

"The world is filling up with TV streaming services with enormous financial backing, and they need content"

Books, of course, are the stalwart source of material for TV, and that hasn't changed. The Handmaid's Tale and Altered Carbon are two seriously successful book adaptations of the past couple of years that spring to mind, but ever since Robert Downey Jr. announced that he was Iron Man, comic books have also been a rich vein for TV executives to mine, from the obvious candidates (American TV is filled with DC Comics based shows, and Disney+ will soon fill with Marvel ones) to the somewhat more obscure shows like Amazon's The Boys, AMC's Preacher and Netflix' upcoming Locke & Key.

Games are, in a sense, the last great untapped well of IP in the era of premium television. To some degree that might just be because games are trickier to adapt; books and comics follow an internal episodic structure and rules of dialogue and character that lend themselves to being interpreted as a TV show relatively well. Games don't necessarily do that, or perhaps more realistically, the process of adapting a game to TV simply isn't a well-trodden path and there aren't as many scriptwriters who could do so deftly.

The Witcher was originally a book series, but there's no doubt that the reason it's on TV is down to CD Projekt's hugely popular game series

The Witcher was originally a book series, but there's no doubt that the reason it's on TV is down to CD Projekt's hugely popular game series

Games face other issues, too. Television executives are often of a generation a bit too old to have grown up as gamers (though that's a barrier being eroded year by year) and the core appeal of a game and its world, characters and story is something that requires a lot more time and effort to explain than just thrusting a comic book into someone's hands. Looming over all of this is the sense many older executives have, hugely outdated as it may be, that games are essentially the preserve of children and teenage boys -- a good market, but not one that makes a lot of decisions about streaming service subscriptions.

"There will undoubtedly be many attempts in the coming years to turn popular games into premium TV shows"

The Witcher is no doubt already doing a lot to overturn all of those barriers. The fact that a series based on an IP with an existing appeal almost entirely down to a game franchise is even being mentioned in the same breath as The Mandalorian -- let alone credibly being said to have be more popular -- ought to be opening eyes and minds around boardroom tables in many big companies. That the hunt for the "next Game of Thrones" seemingly ended up finding it in a videogame is potentially a defining moment for the relationship between the game and TV industries -- it should have companies scrambling to see what else is out there that could possibly work as a premium TV show.

They shouldn't have to look far, because there are dozens of game franchises that fit the bill admirably. The adaptation process would not be uncontroversial, but it's easy to imagine any number of major game properties being translated into hugely popular fantasy or science fiction shows -- from fantasy IPs like The Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age, through alternate history epics like just about any of the Assassin's Creed games, space operas like Mass Effect, post-apocalyptic drama like The Last of Us or Fallout.

Each of these, and many more, have the potential to do for an adapted show what The Witcher games did for Netflix' latest hit -- which, lest we forget, managed to stir up enormous anticipation and hype merely off the back of a teaser image of Henry Cavill in what is, honestly, quite a dodgy wig.

There will undoubtedly be many attempts in the coming years to turn popular games into premium TV shows, and not all of these efforts will turn out well. There's going to be a steep learning curve along the way as creators figure out what the connective tissue between these mediums should be, and where the scalpel needs to be applied more harshly. We saw the same process, warts and all, as comic books started being adapted into TV shows and movies.

There will be some pain points for games, too, but The Witcher has made it clear to everyone; this is a vein of IP that the media giants limbering up for a high-stakes battle over the future of streaming entertainment simply cannot afford to ignore.

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Latest comments (8)

Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes6 months ago
“This, in essence, makes The Witcher into the first hugely successful, premium TV show to build its success on a videogame-centric IP.“

No. It’s a book series. That’s how the IP was created and what the game uses as reference. That the game helped boost its popularity to help get it made into a TV show is irrelevant to the creation of the base IP.
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James Podesta Programmer 6 months ago
33 mil people know it as a computer game IP.
Not sure how many know it as a book series, but I'd guess a fraction of that.
It's irrelevant which came first.
The point is that the success of the computer game is what put it on the tv screen, so other successful computer games could also move that way..
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James Podesta Programmer 6 months ago
I'd really like to see a Horizon Zero Dawn tv series. They cinematography in the game is amazing - would translate beautifully to the screen. Plenty of drama to drawn on, and all the lifelike robotic creatures to befriend or fight would be amazing. The main story is pretty cool too.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes6 months ago
@James Podesta: Missing the point ; the creative and depth of the IP comes from the books. CREATING THE IP is the hard bit which leads to what can be spun off whether that be a video game, TV show, movie, comic.
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz6 months ago
@Richard Browne: Creating the IP is the hard bit. Nobody is disputing that. But the thing that Netflix and co are trying to find is an audience. The Witcher's audience is a gaming audience. Certainly globally.
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Charlie Scott-Skinner Senior Developer 6 months ago
I deliberately read ALL the books before starting the game to get the full experience and was just confused to all hell and back. The books and game don't correlate very much at all (I guess the game has followed it's own arc since #1?)

I really enjoyed the series though which IS following the books, so will probably confuse a lot of poeple that only know the game :D

(Also the 'Show all comments (5)' button doesn't work and just keeps linking back to the same page with the same button. I'm using Opera, so Chrome I guess lol, on Win10)
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments6 months ago
The Witcher is famous from the games, but the TV series is primarily an adaptation of the books. It shows the audience for a game is big enough to support a series, rather than being a proof of concept in adapting a game. It may well encourage producers to look to games for audiences, but the fundamental difficulty in adapting games - in adapting interactive media - remains unanswered; the witcher is very much a special case.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes6 months ago
@Christopher Dring: That’s a massive stretch. It’s a new Netflix show with a great deal of advertising, the promise of the “new Game of Thrones” starring Superman. To say its size of audience it purely down to video games is a bit myopic and doesn’t change my point. We, as an industry, rarely produce IP at a depth where a talented showrunner could come in and produce a hit series from it, The Witcher source material is huge and has tremendous depth - nothing to do with the game - which gives Netflix the ability to know if it hits it can run.
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